Jono Schneider’s review of not-chicago, published in Lyric& #7 (2001).
This beautiful chapbook is a triumph of form—the fluidity with which Rosenthal switches from prose to broken lines, from fragmented sentences to fragmented narratives, is less a case of being in “complete command” of the material than the example of what it means, as Edmond Jabès puts it, “to read the words behind the words.” This is reading the book—the collection of the writing which extends the writing into the material conditions of the page itself. This blank space on the page is where there are no words, but where words relent to allow the attention of reading to both wander and refocus.
How to organize writing? Rosenthal wrestles with this at the outset:
written to me by
which I mean drift
just look at the pictures
or here are techniques of speed (p. 1)
Whether or not “you” is the reader is open to question—the writing continually interacts with, and interjects into its narrative flow (in order to disrupt it), a “you” which may be the many modes of Buber’s “I-Thou”: “You may write to me. You may think of writing to me,” writes Walter Kaufmann in his 1970 preface to Buber’s book. But this “you” is “written” in that it is both attention and diversion—so that the writing is this fluttering between “by/which I mean” and the command which asks for less attention (“just look at the pictures.”) This is similar to Eileen Myles’ statement about allowing yourself to not pay attention to what’s happening. This isn’t ignorance, but an attempt to let the world in. Sarah Rosenthal does this through the negative which doesn’t obliterate place, which instead resists the tyranny of a spot in time: “my book is a secret/an ellipsis” (p. 3).
Letters emerge in this book but are not its primary focus—similar to Emily Dickinson’s letters in that their primary object is to conceal something from the recipient, to make the recipient extract the pearl from the oyster of writing without harming it beyond recognition. So the intimacy of writing a letter implodes, becomes even closer than that:
can you infer me?
M squared, strolling sipping
O in his late years repeated phrases. H went through a phase of this and emerged. D is looking this way (p. 18)
Perhaps reading is inference, is repetition (as Barthes teaches us in S/Z, behind every sign is another sign whose context we must realign with our own). “Persons appear by entering into relation to other presons (Buber, I & Thou, p. 112). Rosenthal makes these persons appear through the relation of individual pieces of writing to the entire book, which is its own context. What’s “not” in the title could by other than “Chicago”—but “Chicago” is a specific idea which can’t be contained in a book, which is what I’m reading Rosenthal against—what the book makes, what the book contains, what the book must ultimately reject. What “not-Chicago” rejects is the refusal to allow relation. So the book keeps changing each time I (re)read it:
“The story I haven’t written yet is not-Chicago. But notice the hyphen.” (p. 38)
“Note also that to put one’s pen on a white page is invariably to mark the space with a dot.” —Jabes